I had already been a witch for twenty years when the Gods decided I needed to go deeper into the mysteries. This experience was spread over several years. It began when I had a parathyroid tumour, and after the operation to remove it I was catapulted into full body tetany when each muscle in my body contracted, one by one, until I could not breathe. I thought then that my heart muscle would be the next one to cease functioning – that I was dying. Despite this, I realised that while my body was panicking around me, experiencing its own fears and the desire to survive, my conscious self was separated from these sensations, and was utterly calm. Above me I could see a doorway, the exit from life, and was silently begging for it to be opened so that I might pass through, but this was not to be. It had taken the medics nearly thirty minutes to respond to my panic button, but eventually I was given emergency treatment and brought back.
Later that night, shocked and now very frightened, the world became nothing but crimson light, out of which shadowy figures emerged, the only clear parts of them threatening teeth and pincers. They haunted me nightly while I was in hospital, and I was plunged into a state of such severe trauma that I began to experience my surroundings in a completely different way. Every sound around me, from the rumbling of hospital trolleys to the calls of the other patients, resonated in a different chakra: low tones were experienced in my root and spleen chakras, while high notes reverberate in my throat and third eye chakras.
After a couple of years, I developed a constant sore throat to the point where it became painful to speak, and eventually impossible; I had developed another growth, this time on one of my salivary glands. Even after this was removed, I began to grow more ill and the medication I was given caused a stroke. Trying to push through this and continue working as well as I could, I felt worse and worse, and eventually developed severe ME – my body and my psyche just could not cope with any more strain. From going about the world I became confined to the house, then to a room, and eventually to a bed. I was in constant pain so severe I wept. I was unable to feed myself and had to be spoon fed. I was unable to take myself to the toilet, to wash and clothe myself. I couldn’t hold a book to read it, and then I lost my eyesight for a time.
Everything I was had been stripped away from me. For the greater part of two years I lay in bed, feeling myself to be an empty shell, completely separated from the world and no longer part of it- it went on around me but I was caught in some hinterland between life and death. Each night I prayed that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning; that the gods would take me, but every day I woke up just the same. Each night I was plagued by dreams and visions of dark tunnels and monsters were teeth and claws that wished to devour me, that were devouring me. I was nothing, and I must either change or die. I surrendered myself to death.
Then one night I lay beneath an open window. The wind was fierce, and gusts played about my bed. “Come with us,” they said, and I left my body to travel the night with the storm, across the paddock and away over the fields. The next morning a phrase from a dream lingered in the air ‘the earth soul and the fire soul’. I understood that the earth soul stayed anchored in one place, while the fire soul was free to roam. From then on, each night I travelled the world with the breeze.
Gradually, little by little, by sheer effort of will, I would crawl from my bed, and Chalky would take me out in the car. Each tree I passed was an immense presence, vibrating with life. I was taken to lie in the garden, and found I could understand the language of plants. Human speech was mostly just a buzz and a blur, but I, who had worked with herbs for many years, finally understood the spirits of plants directly. It seemed to me that I had slowed down so much that I had sunk deeper and deeper into a new level of consciousness, like a person falling into the mud at the bottom of the pond, while on the bright surface other people skittered, moving too fast with their everyday concerns to see what was really going on at the root of things.
Then, one autumn equinox, my friend Sue suggested that we go out for a drive. We decided to go where fate drew us, feeling for the pull of the web at the end of each road to decide which way we should turn. Fate took us to Croft Hill. Though it is only a few miles from my present house, I had never been there before.
Two women with severe ME climbing a steep hill doesn’t seem sensible, but we both knew this is what we were meant to do, struggling with trembling and weak muscles, panting with unfit lungs. Half way up, we stopped and looked back at the landscape laid out before us in the bright September sunshine. For the first time since falling ill, I felt a rush of joy and a sense of being part of the world. Nevertheless, as I struggled to the summit, I felt that the effort was too much and that I would literally die on reaching it. I laid myself on the cleft rock that tops the pinnacle, having the impression it was like a sacrificial altar, and I was willing to die there, in a beautiful place on a beautiful day, and be happy to do so; let the gods take me.
Instead I was aware of being drawn through the rock to deep within the hill. There the spirit of the hill appeared to me, the presence we were later to call Old Man Croft. He showed me many things, including how the hill mediated the power around the local landscape, how energy flowed in and flowed out, and how the rocky crest was the backbone of the hill, his backbone.
After what seemed like aeons I surfaced again and was led to a grove of hawthorns, which I realised made a perfect circle on the hillside. I sat beneath one, and the dryad of the tree emerged and told me to eat one of her fruits. I did. The hill had become part of the tree, and the tree became part of me, and thus we were all connected. I witnessed the souls of the other hawthorns come out and dance on the hillside, weaving a web with the land, the wind, the birds and the sunshine; I knew that the dance would change as the seasons changed. They drew me into the dance; I swayed as a tree, flew with the birds among the branches and blew with the wind about the summit, vibrantly aware of the energy flowing into and out of the hill.
Though I should, by rights, have been exhausted by the trip, when we returned I felt more vigorous than I had for several years, as though my soul was returning to my body. I was brimming with an inexpressible joy.
Croft Hill became a place of pilgrimage for us. On the Summer Solstice of 1999 I poured a libation of water into the summit cleft, and laid a bunch of camomile flowers at its foot. The hawthorns were beginning to form fruits and I reflected on how this was the time of fertilisation, the impregnation of the Earth Mother. However, it was not the day to linger at the hawthorns, so I set off to visit the oak in the hollow. As I sat beneath it, I watched a pillar of light travel upwards from the trunk into the sky, then down again through it into the earth: a cosmic axis. The oak explained that in each place, one tree takes on this role, though not necessarily the oldest one. I thought about the role of the World Tree with its branches in the heavens and thought ‘Well, trees are not that tall, not like mountains’ and the tree replied that its leaves were in more than one realm and that each leaf was a realm in itself.
The next day I was visiting my friend Angie, and when we returned to her house in Rugby we noticed a colossal flock of gulls circling the cornfield. What were so many sea birds doing inland at that time of year? More were flying in to join them all the time. I went across the road to see what was attracting them and they followed me. I went back to the house and again they followed me. Angie and I went inside to get them some bread and water, but when we went out again, they had completely vanished. I knew this must be an omen of something coming along the Web towards me.
That night I entered a trance and began to dance slowly. As I moved, I felt the energies fluctuate around me. I saw the strands of the Web and how things were connected. I understood how to change things by weaving the threads of the web, feeling and seeing which threads I needed – maybe this energy from an oak tree thread, this energy from the grass and the energy from this location and so on. I only needed to pull the energies along the web without involving physical objects at all. I discovered how to draw and weave the energies of stars, moonlight, place and people in ritual.
My illness had given me immeasurable gifts, and the things I saw and experienced were only possible because it changed my level of consciousness, because the world of everyday reality became distant for me and I was forcibly stilled to the point where I saw beyond it.
We’ve all experienced different levels of consciousness. The word ‘consciousness’ is derived from the Latin con-scire meaning ‘with-knowing’. Consciousness is a spectrum from wide-awake, logical thinking to daydreaming, dreaming and deep trance. In the modern western world, only logical thought is considered important and ‘real’, while dreams and visions are dismissed, though in the past people firmly believed that gods and spirits communicated with them in dreams and visions. This was true even in Christian countries where the clergy used meditation, fasting and flagellation to induce visions which gave the recipient both status and power. (However, any non-clergy having visions were subject to investigation and suspicion, especially if they were women.[i]) While in the west, only the state of being wide-awake is given credence as ‘reality’, in religious and shamanic world-views, other levels of consciousness are equally valid. In the world-view of tribal people everywhere, the realms we know from dreams and visions, the worlds inhabited by gods, spirits, animal powers and ancestors, are recognised as equally real. Moreover, these realms hold the key to solving problems, healing and knowledge.
Carlos Casteneda coined the terms ‘ordinary reality’ and ‘non-ordinary reality’. Ordinary reality is the consensual reality we all experience everyday – we can all agree that there is a table over there, rain is wet, two and two make four and so on. We experience this reality through our five senses. It is often called the physical or material plane, the time-space world.
In ordinary life, we are focused on the business of living, yet while we are dreaming or meditating, we experience other kinds of realities. In dreams and visions, we might meet dead relatives, other beings, speak with animals and experience the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Non-ordinary reality is only encountered during an altered state of consciousness. This form of reality is experienced by an individual; he or she sees things that are meant for him alone, and they are generally witnessed by no one else. The exception to this is the work of a close magical group who are trained to change consciousness together using specific methods.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY CONSCIOUSNESS?
Dictionary Definition of Consciousness
- The quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself
- The state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state or fact
- The upper level of mental life of which the person is aware as contrasted with unconscious processes
According to The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspects of our lives.”
We take in the information that is provided by our five senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, and the brain processes them to give us a picture of our surroundings and what is happening. This gives us a consensus of ‘reality’. For example, when you hold a flower, you see the colours, you see its shape, you smell its scent, and you feel its texture. Your brain manages to bind all of these perceptions together into one concept of a flower.
However, if we encounter something outside of the ‘reality’ we have logged in our internal data banks, we can overlook it or even not see it. Native American Indians on Caribbean Islands couldn’t see Columbus’s ships as ships because they were beyond their knowledge. They just saw them as features of the horizon. It was only when the shaman was taken on board one of the ships, could walk around it and see how it related to his world, that he was able to process it and share this knowledge with the rest of the tribe.
A classic experiment on visual processing involved asking people to watch a video of six people passing a basketball, and press a button every time a particular team has possession. Invariably only about half the people tested ever notice a woman in a gorilla suit walking across the middle of the screen during the game. We don’t see things in front of our eyes if we’re not looking for them.
The brain processes 400 billion bits of information per second, but we are only aware of about 2000 of them. The brain receives the rest of the information, but we don’t integrate that knowledge; we are only aware of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the brain receives. Our eyes see far more than we process, but we only process and integrate the things we need, or which seem to be what we need or which fit in with what we expect to see. [ii]
Everyone’s senses are not the same though. Synaesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight. Another form of synaesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, colour or flavour. Imagine that when you see a cloud, you taste blackberries. Or when you hear a violin, you feel a tickle on your left knee. Or you are completely convinced that Wednesdays are red.  Many researchers are interested in synaesthesia because it may reveal something about human consciousness. One of the biggest mysteries in the study of consciousness is what is called the “binding problem.” Synesthetics might have additional perceptions that add to their concept of a flower.
Consciousness is one of the biggest mysteries in the universe. There is no real consensus of what it is and how it arises.
The materialist viewpoint states that consciousness is derived entirely from physical matter, that it is a random function generated by the brain. This raises the question of how and when consciousness emerged, and how exactly did consciousness emerge from something non-conscious? The second theory is Dualism which holds that consciousness is separate and distinct from physical matter, that consciousness is a kind of ghost in the machine of the body.
However, increased understanding of quantum physics has led to a growing band of scientists and philosophers who believe that consciousness permeates the whole of reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human experience, it’s the very foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter – every single particle in existence has a simple form of consciousness. This isn’t meant to imply that particles have a coherent worldview or actively think, only that there’s some inherent subjective experience of consciousness in even the tiniest particle. These particles come together to form more complex forms of consciousness. The Integrated Information Theory argues that something will have a form of ‘consciousness’ if the information contained within the structure is sufficiently “integrated,” or unified, and so the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Because it applies to all structures—not just the human brain— this means that physical matter has innate conscious experience: rocks will be conscious, spoons will be conscious, the Earth will be conscious – any kind of aggregation gives you consciousness.
An alternative theory holds that, rather than individual particles holding consciousness and coming together, the universe as a whole is conscious. This would explain the phenomena of quantum entanglement—the finding that certain particles behave as a single unified system even when they’re separated by such immense distances there can’t be a causal signal between them— and suggest the universe functions as a fundamental whole rather than a collection of discrete parts. Physicist Sir Roger Penrose believes consciousness to be a fundamental property of the universe, present even at the first moment of the universe during the Big Bang.
That’s a very Pagan way of looking at things.
In the monotheistic worldview, supported by western materialism and rationalism, man is the only entity in creation that has consciousness, the pinnacle of creation, above the rest, made in god’s image, the only being that can pray and be elevated to a holy state. The rest of creation is lesser, not conscious, transient and there just to be used.
But this approach is a reflection of a culture that sees the spiritual and physical as separate. If we think of consciousness pervading all things, nature becomes a single whole. Traditional Pagan societies have always recognised that the spiritual and the physical are indivisible and that one is a reflection of the other. To the Ojibwa Native Americans, ‘persons’ comprise one of the major classes of things to which the self must become orientated. This can include animals, plants and inanimate objects.
From a practical perspective, we see everything in life as a distinct, separate entity, with its own unique properties that set it apart from anything else. Essentially, though, this is a construct of the mind, a way to order the world so as to create a structure that is familiar and in which we feel safe to live. It’s not true.
Even your body is not a solid object that carries you through life. It is a network of energy and information in dynamic exchange with the world around you. With every breath, every mouthful of food, every noise you hear and sight you see, your body changes. In the last few seconds, it has exchanged four hundred billion trillion atoms with your environment.[iii] The body only appears to be static because the changes taking place are too small to see. Every year 98% of the atoms have been exchanged.
“Any glass of water you drink might contain one or more water molecules that were previously drunk and later excreted by, say, Isaac Newton. Since water makes up a large percentage of our tissues, your morning coffee probably contained a molecule or two that was once an active part of Newton’s brain. You possibly also have some molecules that were in your own body on the day you were born but then were excreted, recycled through rivers and seas, the sap of trees and the bodies of other creatures, only to turn up a second time in your food.” And if these molecules contain a proto-consciousness, and once formed the consciousness of another entity, what does that mean for our consciousness?
The body is an energy that exists in a constant state of transformation. At the deepest level of existence, we truly are one with the Cosmos.
If we recognise that there is no such thing as ‘me’, ‘mine’, but a flow of creation, and not separate at all, this involves a whole new way of seeing, acting and belonging. We call this letting go of the ego, the ‘I’, an essential stage in changing consciousness.
Text © Anna Franklin 2017
Illustration © Anna Franklin 2017
[i] David Lewis Williams & David Pearce, The Neolithic Mind, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 2005